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Women leaving prison in Colorado are released without much-needed resources

Pamela Clifton, who works for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, sits for a portrait at her desk there on Friday, Feb. 19, 2022. Clifton said she felt abused by the system when she was incarcerated, and has since started the StrongHer campaign to help women re-entering society and wrote a guide to getting out. (Eli Imadali, The Colorado Trust)

On the day Pam Clifton was released from prison to a halfway house in Littleton, she was in possession of one pair of sweatpants, a box of paperwork and $3.18.  

It was 2002, and she had served almost four years on a drug charge. Being on the outside immediately overwhelmed her. Even the thought of walking into a 7-Eleven was terrifying; there were too many choices, too many bright lights.  

“I remember being downtown and having a panic attack because the cars were going so fast,” Clifton, now 60, recalls. “I’d been in a world where everything went 3 miles an hour for a long time.”  

One afternoon, Clifton got lost trying to ride the bus home from job hunting. She walked for more than 5 miles in the snow to make it back to the halfway house in time for curfew.   

It wasn’t only the new decisions and responsibilities that weighed on her. While Clifton was incarcerated, her 7-year-old daughter was sent through 23 foster homes and her 4-year-old son was put up for adoption. She was pregnant when she started her sentence, and her third child died during childbirth; two days into her labor, prison staff finally brought Clifton to a hospital, but the umbilical cord had already wrapped around the infant and cut off her oxygen.  

“I was a hot mess. All I could do was work,” Clifton says of those first post-prison weeks. “I was scared to do anything.” 

Eventually, she adjusted to life on the outside. One year after her release, she was able to reconnect with her daughter. Her son moved back in with her once he turned 18. In 2005, she was hired by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, where she now works as communications coordinator. Recently, she hosted a virtual event to teach other formerly incarcerated women how to share their stories and experiences. 

When it comes to the reentry process, Clifton wants these women to have more help and access to better resources than she did.  

“It’s really scary getting out. Things are moving really fast,” she says. “You haven’t been able to make a decision on your own for years; all of a sudden, not only do you have to make decisions, but you have to act on them and be accountable for all of it. 

“Sometimes, you just need someone to hold your hand.” 

For years, resources, research and programs have focused primarily on the needs of cisgender men leaving the criminal justice system. Existing supports were often applied to women and nonbinary individuals without accounting for their unique pathways into the system and their distinct needs upon release. Clifton is part of a growing effort to develop gender-responsive services to help stop the cycle of incarceration among women. 

People need help in the days after jail

Many people who are released from prison or jail could use some help getting back on their feet. They may need housing, employment or food stamps. They likely don’t have much in the way of clothing, money or basic toiletries. Many lack reliable transportation, or even the ability to cover bus fares. Approximately 50,000 former inmates nationwide are released directly to homeless shelters. These truths hold regardless of gender, but women also face their own challenges. 

Women are most often convicted of nonviolent property (such as burglary or larceny) and drug offenses—criminal activity that’s strongly connected to poverty and substance use. Research shows that nearly three-quarters of women in state prisons report mental health problems, compared to 55% of men. It’s estimated that up to 96% of women involved in the criminal justice system have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives, and they have higher rates of co-occurring substance abuse issues than men. They also have less work experience and lower levels of educational attainment. 

“It looks really different than what we see with men’s patterns of offending,” says Emily Salisbury, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah College of Social Work. “[These factors] pervade much of women’s lives in many ways that contribute to their ongoing offending.”  

Understanding and acknowledging what will most directly benefit women post-release is only becoming more important: Between 1978 and 2015, women’s state prison populations grew by 834% (compared to 367% for men), according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Colorado saw an astounding 2,652% jump in female prisoners between 1980 and 2017—and a 1,640% rise in women in jails—per the Vera Institute of Justice.  

Salisbury emphasizes that this is a nationwide issue: “Our criminal justice and criminal legal system were designed for addressing the needs of men, and primarily violent men. Policies that address women are oftentimes an afterthought and dismissed.” 

Programs designed specifically for this growing population have launched across the country in recent years, from the Women in Recovery program in Tulsa, Okla., to A New Way of Life in Los Angeles, to The Reentry Initiative in Longmont, Colo. Work and Gain Education & Employment Skills is a statewide program funded by a $7 million federal grant; that money is divided between more than 20 community partners across the state, some of which provide focused help for women.  

Despite this progress, Colorado, like much of the country, continues to deal with a dearth of evidence-based, gender-responsive transition resources for the more than 1,100 women released from state prisons and 44,000 from local jails each year.  

“There’s a huge, huge lack,” says Julie Kiehl, executive director of The Empowerment Program, a longstanding, licensed outpatient behavioral health organization based in Denver that was founded to help women who were being released from prison or jail without services and supports. (The group also supports individuals who identify as transgender or nonbinary.) That gap is exacerbated by existing issues with affordable housing and mental health services across the state. 

80% of women in jails are mothers

When women are released from prison, they don’t just have to worry about their own well-being. Close to 60% of women in state or federal prisons and 80% of women in jails are mothers.  

This complicates what resources women require upon release, as well as how much time and energy they have to commit to their own recovery. Any effective programs have to account for the caregiver roles women often inhabit and address the impacts of past and present trauma, while the jobs they take have to pay enough and be flexible enough to support their families, too.  

Liza Johnson, who is a medical case manager for The Empowerment Program and a formerly incarcerated person, stands for a portrait in her office on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. When Johnson got out of prison, The Empowerment Program helped her as she re-entered society. (Eli Imadali, The Colorado Trust)

Liza Johnson, 53, had already lost the parental rights for her two children by the time she was convicted and served two years in prison, plus two years of parole. Born and raised in Colorado, Johnson had been in and out of jail for more than a decade prior to that; her stints inside ranged from two days to six months, and they were all tied to her drug addiction.

Johnson still remembers the questions flying around inside her head as her release date approached: “Where you gonna go? I don’t have a job; I don’t have any experience. What am I gonna do? Who’s gonna hire me as a felon? Where am I gonna live? How am I going to be able to provide food, all those different things?” 

She had help from more than one local advocacy group, including The Empowerment Program. “So much of what we do at Empowerment is providing a safe space to work through trauma,” Kiehl says. “A lot of the women who we work with feel much safer in a space that is primarily or all women, especially when you’re talking about [treatment] groups.” 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Empowerment serves approximately 3,000 people per year; more than 75% of its clients are engaging with reentry-related support. Johnson says the program’s key benefit was that everything—from drug and alcohol prevention and education classes, to the employment specialist who connected her with a job cleaning houses—was available in one place.  

Johnson now brings her lived experiences to her role as a medical case manager with Empowerment. She learned to type and use computers on the job—she started at Empowerment 13 years ago—and became a certified addiction technician. 

“It made me feel really good about myself,” Johnson says of the opportunity. “It made me feel like I could do this.” 

Developing trusting relationships is critical in providing successful support, advocates working in this space say. “It’s not really fair to talk about reentry in this bubble,” Kiehl says. “Let’s talk about what happened all the years they were incarcerated and what happened all the years before they were incarcerated.” 

Some systems are getting better at assessing needs

Awareness of the unique needs of criminal justice-involved women has grown over the past decade.  

In 2010, the United Nations adopted the “Bangkok Rules,” universal standards for treating incarcerated women that reflect “the specific needs and requirements” of the population.

New initiatives stemming from this core belief continue to emerge: In September 2021, Denver’s Center for Trauma & Resilience launched Community Oriented Reentry Experience; the pilot program provides trauma-informed, gender-responsive aid to formerly incarcerated women of color. In April 2022, Project Elevate, a trauma-informed halfway house for women run by the City of Denver in partnership with Empowerment, will open with around 50 beds. (Denver’s last—and only—halfway house for women was privately owned and operated by GEO Group and closed in October 2019.) 

Some corrections systems are also getting better at assessing women independently from men, instead of relying on male-based or gender-neutral tools. Salisbury helped develop the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA), an instrument that predicts recidivism risk based on women’s unique needs and strengths with the goal of stopping the cycle of incarceration. It’s the only peer-reviewed and validated tool that was specifically created for justice system-impacted women.  

The City and County of Denver has participated in WRNA trainings and will be involving even more stakeholders (nonprofits, legal service providers, etc.) in those classes this year, says Denver County Court program manager Lynn Unger. On any given day, about 15% of Denver’s jail population identifies as female, she says. 

Unger emphasizes that reducing recidivism isn’t simply about identifying women’s risks for engaging in criminal behavior—it’s also about working with their assets. “It’s making sure we’re supporting their educational strengths, family, self-efficacy,” she says. Unger is hopeful that the county court’s efforts can serve as a model for the rest of the state.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has, unsurprisingly, hindered some of this progress. The Reentry Initiative and Empowerment Program used to go into prisons to start building relationships with women and draft practical post-release plans for them. Staff would be at the door waiting for the women as they walked out. The Reentry Initiative’s team has not been allowed inside prisons since March 2020, while Empowerment’s visits have been inconsistent since that time.  

Advocates say making an initial connection while women are still behind bars is a vital step toward achieving future success. “It’s so key when you talk about reentry to start talking about this in-reach of trying to provide community-based services, bring the community into jails and prisons so that it’s really inside out,” Kiehl says. “The services need to start much, much, much, much sooner because then you have a realistic chance of continuing that momentum.” 

The state legislature seems to have recognized that fact. In 2021, it passed a bill that aims to reduce recidivism by requiring the Colorado Department of Corrections to, among other things, create a plan for every inmate before they’re released. Additionally, in November, the Colorado Attorney General’s office announced a $1.1 million grant to improve the “prison-to-employment pathway.” Another new grant program—facilitated in part by the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership—will increase the case management available to soon-to-be and recently released individuals, including those at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.  

“When you see these things being put in place, women start to feel empowered, start to work on themselves… start to take the rightful place in their families… and start becoming productive citizens for their families and communities,” Salisbury says. “When we put gender-responsive policies and curricula in place, we see [drops in recidivism] compared to when we put gender-neutral policies in place.” 

That last piece is of particular import in Colorado. The state has one of the worst recidivism rates in the country, with nearly 45% of people who are released from state prison returning to the system within three years (as of 2017, the most recent year for which state data exists). For the last two months of available data, the Department of Corrections is projecting a 6-13% increase in the number of female parolees returning to incarceration this year with a new felony conviction, while among men, a 9% decrease is predicted.  

Yet in 2020, The Reentry Initiative’s recidivism rate for its program participants was 5.6%. 

“Sometimes, it feels like the women are limited to what resources they can access, and because there are not a lot of those resources out there, they’ve got to take what they can get—and sometimes that’s not enough,” Johnson says. “We need the same resources and opportunities that are provided for men.” 


Freelance writer  Daliah Singer wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and that funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on Feb. 22, 2022. It can be read in Spanish at coloradotrust.org/es .


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